Like clockwork, the pre-holiday articles and TV segments on how to stick to a diet, how to avoid overeating, and how to “detox” after you’ve overindulged have arrived.
Tips include replacing potatoes with cauliflower, filling up on salad instead of stuffing, and doing everything you can to tune out the siren call of sweet pecan pie.
I say: Ignore this miserable advice. Just eat the damn pie.
Here’s what’s wrong with obsessing about an extra dessert or slice of turkey this week: It’s a distraction from what really matters for health.
Much more important in the long run is creating an environment and habits that foster healthy eating for the other 364 days of the year.
While there is some evidence that holidays can lead to modest amounts of weight gain, a few rich meals this time of year aren’t going to relegate you to a life of ill health if you have a healthy diet most days. And the energy spent fighting temptation or scolding yourself will only make you feel bad.
So what does healthy eating look like? It’s actually not that complicated. Check out this consensus statement from a very diverse group of nutrition researchers, who got together to discuss what they all agree on about nutrition and health:
More fruits and vegetables. Less ultra-processed junk food. There is no food boogeyman, not even pie. Anyone who tells you there’s one food to fear — one food that will make all the difference in your health — is probably trying to sell you something.
“[The holidays] are not the time to begin a diet, nor is it the right time to get serious about [dieting],” food policy and nutrition researcher Marion Nestle summed up. “The objective should be to relax and take pleasure in family, friends, and food.”
Many of our dietary aversions are more driven by fear than reason, as Aaron Carroll — author of the new book, The Bad Food Bible — pointed out in the New York Times: “By fretting about food, we turn occasions for comfort and joy into sources of fear and anxiety. And when we avoid certain foods, we usually compensate by consuming too much of others.”
Also remember: If the pie is already in front of you, your ability to resist it will be quite low, as Vox’s Brian Resnick has explained in his story on the myth of self-control. Research shows that “trying to teach people to resist temptation either only has short-term gains or can be an outright failure,” he writes. In short, the pie has already won.
Healthy eating is more about surrounding yourself with healthy options — not about how virtuous or strong a person you are. So, again, the focus should be on creating an environment that makes foods like fresh fruits and vegetables the default — at least most of the time.
To be clear: That’s easier said than done for many people. We know that America’s food landscape is more obesity-promoting than health-promoting, and that fresh produce is more expensive than the salty, sugary, and fatty junk that is for sale everywhere. Right now, fewer than 3 percent of Americans manage to incorporate one or two of the very basics of a healthy lifestyle — more fruits and vegetables or going on walks — into their routines.
These challenges abound all year round, not just during pie-rich holidays. “[Holiday overeating] is not the cause of [being] overweight,” Nestle explained. “It’s the other 364 days of living in a relentless food marketing environment — food sold everywhere, 24/7, in huge portions — that makes weight control so difficult.” In that context, pie on Thanksgiving is the least of our worries.